EXPEDITION: "In Search of the Mai Tai" | Part-1

Cocktails are a vacation in a glass, able to transport you across the globe in the moment it takes your mind to register the delicious flavors floating across your tongue.  A good cocktail is like a five star resort on a powder-white sandy beach, overflowing with beautiful women in string bikinis that think you’re handsome and charming.  A bad cocktail is akin to a roadside motel with a chain-link fenced pool beside the highway with a dead cat floating in it....

Most bars are stocked with mixers more suitable for killing weeds than they are for human consumption; lousy with artificial coloring, artificial flavors, HFCS, and preservatives, they are the $2 whores of the bar; relegated to the “Well” (gutter) next to the rot-gut gin, tequila and whiskey, but oh so glossy, colorful, alluring and sweet.  This, combined with a bartender whose mixological education is as wrong as the world history taught to a teen bride on a fundamentalist Mormon compound, is a recipe for serious regret…

The burden of being a somewhat proficient bar chef, and an obsessive purist, is that unless I’m ordering a beer or a Bourbon, I become the insulting know-it-all high maintenance asshole telling the bartender how to do his job.  I know this about myself and modify my expectations accordingly.  (Wild Turkey on the rocks is hard to screw up).  Most bartenders/bar owners want you to shut up and keep ordering “Sex on the Beach” shots until you stumble into the streets and become somebody else’s problem.  There are, however, a few exceptions.

The first true bartender I ever met was a guy by the name of John Henry (great name) working at James’ Beach in Venice Beach.  I was just a young shit and only knew of one good cocktail, the Old Fashioned.  It was my grandfather’s favorite hi-ball and I grew up stealing sips from his glass.  John Henry made it right and perfect every time, and the fact that I remember his name twenty years later is a testament of his bartending skills.  What mattered was that he cared about what he was serving, and thus I returned often and tipped heavily. 

The Mai Tai is probably the most bastardized and butchered drink you can order at a bar, to the point that I highly recommend you don’t.  It’s so far gone that I don’t even bother ordering one. Most bartenders think the drink consists of a bunch of tropical fruit juices and light and dark rum. As with every worthwhile  contribution to society, you must examine its importance and development within the context of the time of its creation. 

As travel became increasingly easier in the late 20’s and early 30’s, people needed gimmicks to fill their restaurants and bars.  A young vagabond traveler named Don the Beachcomber decided to open America’s first Tiki-themed bar in Hollywood.  Inspired by his travels through South East Asia, the kitschy aesthetic drew the people in, but what kept them returning was the “exotic” cocktails he served.  He employed four Philippino lads to make the drinks and kept them in the background whenever one was ordered.  He was brilliant at building his image and brand, but depending on who you want to listen to, the boys probably came up with all of the cocktail recipes based on drinks they’d had back home.  The most famous drink to come from Don’s place is the Zombie, but there was also a drink shown on the menu called the Mai Tai Swizzle.  It appeared in 1933 but was gone from the menu by 1937.  The Tiki craze caught on and Polynesian style bars and restaurants were popping up all over the country.

To Be Continued...

(Original Artwork by Shag)


  1. An old fashioned is is NOT a highball....not to be an obsessive purist or nothing. But this post is otherwise great stuff!

  2. MLS-I forwarded your comment to my Grandmother. You can take it up with her...

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